REVIEW: Get ready, “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations” is out of sight
There is a phenomenon in television where a spin-off series becomes more popular and critically acclaimed than its source—think “The Honeymooners”, “The Simpsons”, or “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit”.
Last month, the musical equivalent of a superlative spin-off opened on Broadway—and there’s no doubt that it far surpasses the original in every way.
While featured as bit characters in the 2013 musical “Motown”, one of the most successful groups in American music history rightfully takes centerstage in “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations”. Seamless, slick, and exuberantly entertaining, “Ain’t Too Proud” is easily one of the best catalogue musicals ever to grace The Great White Way.
If there were a formula, musicals would be easy. But there isn’t. And they aren’t. Yet, somehow, the miraculous mix of songbook, character, story, dance, direction, and design currently on display at the Imperial Theatre produces an apotheotic synergy that results in an evening of musical euphoria disproving the half-baked thesis of naysayers who bemoan the genre known as “the jukebox musical”.
This is particularly impressive given that despite the outrageously infectious music of R&B giants The Temptations and the era in which they reigned (a whopping 31 songs are featured in the show), their story is one of quick creation, meteoric rise, and trailblazing success, followed by a long plateau of personnel change—“entrances and exits”—that continues to the present.
That’s not exactly the most inspiring grist for dramatization. It is barely a story.
And yet, under the helm of seasoned director Des McAnuff—who shaped “Jersey Boys” into a phenomenon—and prestigious playwright, MacArthur Foundation “genius”, and Detroit native Dominique Morisseau (“The Detroit Project”) who wrote the book, “Ain’t Too Proud” overcomes the challenge of its dramatically imperfect true story to deliver an energetic, fast-moving, and engrossing portrait-like study of the group over time and the singular institution it has become.
Otis Williams (Derrick Baskin), the founder and only surviving member of the original five Temptations, serves as narrator. The real Otis Williams is an executive producer of the show, which is based on his 1988 memoir, The Temptations. While “Motown” was so clearly the Berry Gordy show, devoid of any sense of objectivity, “Ain’t Too Proud” manages to produce an even-handed depiction of the group without being overly sentimental. Another impressive feat.
In total, there have been 24 Temptations—a fact that makes the group unique among its peers and in the history of American popular music. Self-aware, at one point Otis remarks: “sometimes Temp stood for temporary.”
True to the story, Otis assembles the “original five” one-by-one: Paul Williams (James Harkness), Melvin Franklin (Jawan M. Jackson), Eddie Kendricks (Jeremy Pope), and David Ruffin (Ephraim Sykes). The group comes alive, then, over the balance of the show, each member except Otis proceeds to be replaced one-by-one due to absenteeism, alcoholism, drugs, illness, and death—all while gently surfing tides of social and political change from 1960 to the present.
The beat never stops, and the songs are thankfully plotted diegetically, rather than being awkwardly interpolated into serving a literal purpose beyond the reality of their performance. That’s a decision that pays dividends. It gives the audience what it wants, faithfully delivering hits like “The Way You Do the Things You Do”, “Ain't Too Proud to Beg”, and “I'm Gonna Make You Love Me” as they were written to sung, free from the constraints of larger storytelling demands, while also artfully orchestrating their order for maximum dramatic impact as part of the overarching story.
Known for their matching suits and remarkably synchronous movement, costume designer Paul Tazewell and choreographer Sergio Trujillo faithfully recreate the iconic stage presence of The Temptations. The movement is so deft that is hard to see where Mr. Trjuillo’s choreography and Mr. McAnuff’s contributions as stager begin and end. Their work amounts to one complete thought.
Indeed, the entire show moves, from start to finish, in ecstatic choreography aided by turnstiles and conveyor belts. The smart, monochromatic scenic design by Robert Brill, effective projections by Peter Nigrini, and razor-sharp lighting by Howell Binkley seamlessly echo the movement of the actors, creating an alchemy that blends so totally and successfully that the eyes remain captivated, with the heart swept along.
When the music is the point of the story, it is essential to get that right. Unlike the chintzy orchestrations and lackluster band size of last season’s disappointing “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” (read my review)—by team McAnuff and Trujillo no less—“Ain’t Too Proud” is blessed with a real 18 person orchestra led by music director and arranger Kenny Seymour and consisting of live brass, woodwind, and string sections. It sounds lush because it is lush. There is no substitute. And the vocals on stage match the band with a precision of pitch and power that is intoxicating.
The past two decades have born witness to an explosion of jukebox musicals aiming to capitalize on the nostalgia of Baby Boomers who are prime ticket-buyers on Broadway. Some are good, a few great—too many disappointing.
At its most fundamental level, this show looks good, sounds good, and feels good. It’s one of the greats.
Writer Rick Elice (“Jersey Boys”, “The Cher Show”) contends that to dismiss jukebox or catalogue musicals outright is like walking into an art museum and grumbling over the sight of another rectangular canvas. Of course, it is what’s inside the frame that matters. “Get Ready”, because “Ain’t Too Proud” is “out of sight”.
Bottom Line: “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations” is a seamless, slick, and exuberantly entertaining new musical that reclaims the “jukebox” genre with an energetic, fast-moving, and engrossing portrait-like study of The Temptations. This show looks good, sounds good, and feels good, and is easily one of the best catalogue musicals ever to grace The Great White Way.
“Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations”
249 West 45th Street
New York, NY 10036
Running Time: two hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: March 21, 2019